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The two most common reasons women have a first caesarean section


Research in context

In Australia and many high-income countries, the rate of caesarean section (CS) is increasing. There is no evidence that higher rates of CS improve health outcomes, which raises concerns about overuse of the surgical procedure (ACOG et al., 2014).

In 2000, 1 in 5 Australian women had a caesarean section. That rate is now more than 1 in 3 (AIHW, 2018). For women having their first baby in Australia the risk of CS is 37% (AIHW, 2020). Once a woman has experienced a CS, future vaginal birth is much less likely. In Australia, 7 out of 8 women will have a repeat CS for their next baby (AIHW, 2020). Therefore, preventing the first caesarean section (called a “primary CS”) is paramount wherever safely possible (ACOG et al., 2014).

Some have attributed the significant rise in CS rates to the increase in older and more obese pregnant women (RANZCOGAIHW releases data on caesarean section in Australia). Indeed, age ≥35 years and obesity can increase the chances of health issues including high blood pressure, diabetes, and multiple pregnancies. Nevertheless, this change alone is unlikely to explain the magnitude of the rise in CS rates, nor the differences in CS rates in different settings (WHO, 2018).

What the research did 

New research led by PhD candidate Haylee Fox, supervised by TMCC Deputy-Director, Associate Professor Emily Callander, aimed to build our knowledge in this area:

Fox et al. (2021) used routinely collected hospital data to analyse the main reasons recorded by clinicians for primary CS in Queensland Health hospitals. Nearly 100,000 women either having their first baby or having a subsequent baby after previous vaginal birth were included in the study. Women who had experienced a previous CS were excluded.

What the research found

The top two reasons women in Queensland public hospitals had a primary CS were: ‘abnormal fetal heart rate’ (23%) and ’primary inadequate contractions’ (23%). Medical interventions including artificial rupture of membranes (ARM), oxytocin augmentation or induction of labour, and epidural analgesia predicted CS for fetal heart rate concerns (as did obstructed labour). Where a primary CS was performed due to “inadequate” contractions, epidural analgesia, ARM, fetal stress, and oxytocin augmentation or induction were predictive factors.

So what does this mean?

Induction of labour and epidural analgesia predict the two most common reasons for primary CS.  Accurate, evidence-based information about the potential consequences of induction of labour or epidural should be provided to all women (Fox et al, 2021). Indeed, these results warrant professional reflection on the use of induction of labour and epidural analgesia, alongside critical review of relevant policies, given the clear link with primary CS.

An Australian study including 1.25 million reported women who accessed birth centre or homebirth had lower rates of oxytocin augmentation and epidural use. Maternal and perinatal outcomes by planned place of birth in Australia 2000 – 2012: a linked population data study | BMJ Open. The Cochrane systematic review found women receiving midwife-led care in a hospital setting were less likely to receive an epidural, although it appeared to make no difference to rates of induction of labour or oxytocin augmentation. Midwife-led continuity models of care compared with other models of care for women during pregnancy, birth and early parenting | Cochrane

Midwifery continuity of care models and out-of-hospital birth protect against overuse of medical interventions including CS. Universal access to continuity of midwifery care should be a national policy priority.


American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (College); Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, Caughey AB, Cahill AG, Guise JM, Rouse DJ. (2014). Safe prevention of the primary cesarean delivery. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 210(3), 179-93. https://doi.10.1016/j.ajog.2014.01.026

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). Australia’s Mothers and Babies 2018 – In Brief. AIHW.

Fox, H., Topp, S. M., Lindsay, D., & Callander, E. (2021). A cascade of interventions: A classification tree analysis of the determinants of primary cesareans in Australian public hospitals. Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care, 00, 1-12.

Homer, C.S.E., Cheah, S.L., Rossiter, C. et al. (2019). Maternal and perinatal outcomes by planned place of birth in Australia 2000 – 2012: a linked population data study. BMJ Open, 9, e029192. https://doi.10.1136/bmjopen-2019-029192

Sandall, J., Soltani, H., Gates, S., Shennan, A., & Devane, D. (2016). Midwife-led continuity models versus other models of care for childbearing women. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD004667. https://doi.10.1002/14651858.CD004667.pub5

World Health Organization. (2018). WHO Recommendations Non-Clinical Interventions to Reduce Unnecessary Caesarean Sections. WHO.

Access to midwifery continuity of care for childbearing women in the Australian health system

Equitable access to high quality maternity care is a critical priority for all health systems (Koblinsky et al. 2016; United Nations 2019). Strong evidence show that continuity of care delivered by a known midwife is safe, confers significant health benefits for women and babies, and results in higher reported satisfaction with care (Forster et al. 2016; Sandall et al. 2016). Not only is continuity of midwifery care linked to improved outcomes in general populations of childbearing women and those with social risk factors, studies also demonstrate the model meets the triple aims of health system improvement – improved satisfaction, better health care, and cost effectiveness (APPGGH 2016; Berwick 2008).

Despite this evidence, only a small proportion of women have access to continuity of midwifery care.  Scaling up access for women in vulnerable groups presents additional challenges (Renfrew et al. 2019). It’s important to know where families have or do not have access to high quality maternity care across birth settings, so that solutions can be found. A team of researchers from the Transforming Maternity Care Collaborative, led by Dr Rosalyn Donnellan-Fernandez have recently used modelling to provide a snapshot of the progress that is being made in Queensland towards providing universal access to publicly funded models of care (Donnellan-Fernandez et al., 2020).

2017 data for Queensland health services provided information about the number of services offering a midwifery continuity of carer model and the number of full-time equivalent midwives employed in such models. Assuming that each full-time equivalent midwife provided care to 35 women annually formed the basis of the model.

Almost 40,000 births occurred in public hospitals (excluding the Mater) in 2017. Overall, 18% of Queensland women who gave birth that year would have had access to a midwifery continuity of care model. When comparing hospitals by the number of births, geographical location, and whether they operated as a tertiary referral service, significant variations were present. Hospitals with a birth rate of 500 – 2000 births had the lowest estimated access to midwifery continuity of care at 11%. 11,830 women gave birth in these hospitals, almost 30% of the births in 2017.

Three large tertiary hospitals were the site of another 30% of the births. 17% of women giving birth in these facilities were estimated to have access to midwifery continuity of care. Five remote hospitals (providing birth care for 2%) had the highest rate of access at 77%, however this rate was noted to not reflect the full picture for these services. High rates of both planned and emergent antenatal and intrapartum transfer (from 30 to 90%) have been reported for these services. The estimated rates of access to midwifery continuity of carer include women who received antenatal and / or postnatal care in these five hospitals, but who gave birth elsewhere, therefore providing an artificially high estimate.

The authors concluded:

“scaling-up continuity of midwifery care models remains an important public health strategy to address equitable service access and disparate maternal and infant health outcomes.”

All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health (APPGGH). (2016). Triple Impact Report. How developing nursing will improve health, promote gender equality and support economic growth. 

Berwick, D.M., Nolan, T.W., & Whittington, J. (2008). The triple aim: Care, health, And cost. Health Affairs, 27(3), 759-769.

Donnellan-Fernandez, R. E., Creedy, D. K., Callander, E. J., Gamble, J., & Toohill, J. (2020, Aug 28). Differential access to continuity of midwifery care in Queensland, Australia. Australian Health Review, in press.

Forster D.A., McLachlan, H.L., Davey, M.A., et al. (2016). Continuity of care by a primary midwife (caseload midwifery) increases women’s satisfaction with antenatal, intrapartum and postpartum care: results from the COSMOS randomised controlled trial. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth, 28, 2016.

Koblinsky, M., Moyer, C., Calvert, C., Campbell, J., Campbell, O., Feigl, A., Graham, W., Hatt, L. Hodgins, S., Matthews, Z., McDougall, L., Moran, A., Nandakumar, A., Langer, A. (2016). Quality maternity care for every woman everywhere: a call to action. Lancet, 388, 2307-2320.

Renfrew, M., Ateva, E., Dennis-Antwi, J., Davis, D., Dixon, L., Johnson, P., Powell Kennedy, H., Knutsson, A., Lincetto, O., McConville, F., McFadden, A., Taniguchi, H., Ten Hoope Bender, B., Zeck, W. (2019). Midwifery is a vital solution—What is holding back global progress? Birth, 46, 396-399.

Sandall, J., Soltani, H., Gates, S., Shennan, A., Devane, D. (2016). Midwife-led continuity models versus other models of care for childbearing women. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, CD004667.

United Nations. (2019). The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019. Department of Economic and Social Affairs: UN. New York.